Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur: Mining For Gold

Finalists for the American League Gold Glove Awards were announced today and Royals outfielders are well-represented.

Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur are both finalists for their respective positions. Unlike in years past, this season, awards will be handed out for specific outfield positions. Previously, an entire pool of outfielders would be selected for the three outfield Gold Glove Awards, usually resulting in three center fielders taking the honors. This year, the change allows Gordon and Francoeur to have a shot.

Gordon was named a finalist along with Tampa’s Sam Fuld and New York’s Brett Gardner, while Francoeur was named a finalist and has to fend off Baltimore’s Nick Markakis and the Angels Torii Hunter.

What are their chances? Well, it depends on how you look at it.

By traditional statistics, Markakis was perfect in right field, committing no errors while recording 14 assists. Hunter, who won the Gold Glove every season from 2001 to 2009 committed three errors in right field for a .989 fielding percentage and had 15 assists. Francoeur led all right fielders with 16 assists and had a .986 fielding percentage.

He also made this throw:

In left, Gordon led the majors in outfield assists with 20 and committed three errors for a .991 fielding percentage. Gardner’s fielding percentage in left was .987 and he committed three errors as well, but only had seven assists. Fuld, who played in 87 games in 2011 – 75 in left field – put up a .982 fielding percentage and also committed three errors. He had five assists.

By those measures, Markakis is the favorite in right field, while Gordon, in his first full year in the outfield, should be a lock in left.

This award doesn’t follow a lot of those rules, though. While it’s great to celebrate a player winning the Gold Glove, it’s not without its faults. The award frequently becomes an honorary prize rather than a true measure of the best fielders in the game. Watch any comments on Twitter during a Yankees game, and you’re bound to see a multitude of Derek Jeter jokes, who has won numerous Gold Gloves despite declining range at shortstop. Alcides Escobar, who may be the most talented fielder in the American League among shortstops, didn’t even make the final three at the position.

With reputation in mind, the speedy (and big market – ahem) Gardner is most likely to win the award. Sad but true.

But there’s another wrinkle that may be in play.

In previous seasons, players like Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez, clearly the best pitchers in their Cy Young seasons, won their awards despite poor win totals. Most years, if a pitcher isn’t at 18 or 19 wins, there’s no chance they’ll be in the top three in Cy Young voting. Baseball writers, to their credit, haven’t overvalued the win statistic as much in recent seasons, and some have used peripheral statistics to make their decisions. Unfortunately, that open-mindedness may not extend to the coaches and managers who vote for the Gold Glove Awards.

Fielding analysis is difficult. For one, most baseball analysts suggest that three years of data is best to create enough of a sample to make a more accurate judgment of a fielder’s abilities. The Gold Glove is awarded for a single year’s performance. There’s going to be anomalous winners sometimes. Progress has been made in devising advanced statistics to measure fielding value and the following graphs compare the finalists by some of those metrics:

First, some rudimentary definitions of what we’re looking at:

  • DRS = Defensive Runs Saved – how many runs did a player save by his fielding? Anything over 0 is above average.
  • RngR = Range Runs – does the fielder get to more balls than average or not?
  • UZR/150 = Ultimate Zone Rating (per 150 games). There’s a great primer on FanGraphs about this subject. The gist is that every play has an n% chance of being fielded by the average fielder. When a player makes the play, they’re credited with a point equaling that percentage (e.g., 80% = .80 points). Over time, those points accumulate (or if they don’t make a play they lose the points) and then is adjusted to a rate of 150 games (which allows Fuld’s UZR to be compared relative to Gordon and Gardner, even though he played far fewer games than either).

The graph compares the right fielders, and we see that Francoeur had the lowest range and second best UZR/150 and DRS. Markakis finished last in all three. Hunter, based on the graph, looks like the frontrunner. However, these numbers are from FanGraphs. Baseball-Reference.com shows Francoeur as having the second-best range factor per nine innings as a right fielder (range factor is simply putouts + assists divided by innings played and multiplied by nine). Range factor, though, doesn’t always mean a player reached more balls and doesn’t tell anything about if they were able to protect against extra bases by covering the gap or getting to the line quickly. It measures nothing about a fielder’s first step or the angle they take.

Basically, it’s all complicated, nuanced stuff.

Also, it’s notable that according to these advanced metrics, the right field candidates aren’t really that great.

In left field, the overall performance is better, by the numbers:

At a glance, Gardner is a slam dunk for the award, despite being well behind in the traditional defensive numbers. He’s not unlike Carl Crawford, a left fielder in name, but a center fielder in skill. Gardner probably should win the Gold Glove.

Of the two Royals, Gordon’s chances are much better than Francoeur’s. Both Markakis and Hunter have an edge on Francoeur statistically, and while Francoeur has won the Gold Glove before (2007), Hunter has been a mainstay most of his career and Markakis has always been solid.

My hunch is that Fuld’s limited time will push him behind Gordon and Gardner, both of whom had strong seasons in left. Watching Gardner, he has the speed to cover more ground. Gordon’s arm and aggressiveness make up some of the gap, but he’s also a newcomer to such recognition, while Gardner’s abilities in the field have been touted for years. I think it could be close, but Gordon will fall just short. For what it’s worth, though, Gordon’s range factor led all American League left fielders.

The awards will be announced Tuesday night at 9 p.m. central time on ESPN2. Mark Grudzielanek was the last Royal to win a Gold Glove, winning in 2006 at second base.

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Topics: AL Central, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Baseball, Brett Gardner, Eric Hosmer, Gold Glove Awards, Jeff Francoeur, Kansas City Royals, KC, KC Royals, MLB, Nick Markakis, Royals, Sam Fuld, Torii Hunter

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